Sherlock Holmes and the Dark, Sinister World of Black Levels

Friday, February 26, 2010

Posted February 25, 2010 by Jennifer Davis & Erik Guslawski

I finally got a chance to watch the critically-acclaimed Sherlock Holmes, from Warner Brothers starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, in the theater this weekend.  

I love a “who done it” and am a self-proclaimed technology geek, so I found the story and the characters really engaging.  Without spoiling it for everyone, it is a classic tale of science winning over fear.  In line with the novels, the tiniest details and astute observations lead to revolutionary outcomes.

Sitting there in the dark theater, I couldn’t help but think how great the movie will look on a Runco projector in your home, when the Blu-Ray is released later this year. The cinematography is useful in teaching about one of the single most important qualities in any display: black levels.

For those of you who have seen the movie or the trailer, it is very dark. There are shadowed alleyways, sewer tunnels, midnight meetings, and of course, a main character who has dark hair and likes to dress in the Morag.

So, to shed more light on the importance of black levels, I consulted one of our gurus who works with dealers in the field every day to get extraordinary results in home cinema, Erik Guslawski, Runco Field Technical Product Specialist. “The deeper the black are, the more contrast our eye perceives and this actually makes the picture look sharper to us,” he explains. “When you don’t have deep blacks and all you have is a sort of gray/ dark gray, the whole image will appear hazy and cloudy rather than clear. You will likely see each and every detail in the shadows but overall the image will not ‘pop’ very much. It will look flat and lifeless. When you have only ‘jet black’, there are no details in the shadows and the black level is really ‘crushed’. This is far from ideal.”

To evaluate a display for black levels, we recommend finding an image or scene that includes dark details. For instance, find an image of someone with black hair (something that will be easy to do in Sherlock Holmes). Do you see each strand of hair or just a solid black mass? Clothing, like pin stripes on dark suits, or the detail reflection from a black piano shown in a Grammy broadcast, is also a great way to see black levels. The ideal display will portray inky dark black levels (a key element for getting good contrast) and maintain the very fine “just above” black details (which provide realism and in the case of Sherlock Holmes, the clues to solving the mystery).

According to Erik, there are plenty of test patterns used to check and set black level. Below is his explanation of how to use such a test pattern:

Commonly known as PLUGE pattern it will usually contain a solid 0 IRE background and at least two black bars or stripes. If it’s a proper PLUGE pattern (and if the source device outputs the signal properly), one of these stripes will actually be BELOW black. It would appear darker than the black background. Technically one would never see anything below black in actual video content, but it’s very useful for setting black level. The other stripes would be just above 0IRE, say about 2.5IRE and/or perhaps 5IRE. The way you use this pattern is to set the brightness control down far enough to the point where the BELOW black stripe disappears into the 0IRE background but you can still see the other bars that are just above black. The theory is that by making the “blacker than black” bar disappear into the background, which is 0, and still able to see the information just above that, you have the deepest black levels the display can produce while still being able to see everything above that. Think of the 2.5 and 5IRE stripes as the fine pin stripes or threads on someone’s clothing. If you set the brightness control too far down you will lose those details. The “blacker than black” bar is there simply as a reference point. If you are setting the brightness control and you can still see that -5IRE bar, you need to keep adjusting. The whole idea is to get the deepest black levels you can while still seeing everything just above “black.” I always recommend that after you set levels using test patterns to go to some good video content (I have my favorite clip of Katharine McPhee that is good for this purpose) and evaluate the image to make sure you are seeing those details. Often times I find myself tweaking the brightness control UP one or two ticks from what I got when using test patterns alone.

PLUGE stands for Picture Line-Up Generation Equipment. Pluge patterns are usually generated by specialised video calibration equipment such as a synch pulse generator.

There are many types of pluge patterns but they all contain a variety of black, white and/or gray shaded areas.


  1. The first vertical bar (on the left) is black and can't be seen against the background
  2. The second vertical bar is only just visible as a dark gray.
  3. The third vertical bar is a lighter gray and clearly visible.
  4. The white box is a comfortable level of true white.
  5. There is no colour in the pluge display at all.


Now, the next step to getting a well-tuned display for your environment is adjusting white levels for contrast (and these two interact with each other so they should be done in concert), but we’ll save that for another post (or authorized Runco dealers are always invited to our Runco Academy courses where Erik and the team will teach them all they need to know about perfecting a Runco product in their clients’ homes. See the partner portal for a schedule and details.)

In all cases, adjustments to a display should be made in the ambient lighting conditions in the client will be watching the display. “Ambient room lighting and the colors of the furnishings and finishes in the room will affect how your eye picks up those black stripes,” Erik contends. In a pitch black room with no stray light hitting the screen those bars are very easy to see, but that may not affect real average viewing conditions or content. “This is why I like to recommend using patterns that have some bright elements in it as well, so that you can see how the reflected light off the screen will bounce off the walls and ceiling and adjust for that. In addition to the below black and slightly above black bars you will use to set black level, a good pattern will also have gray steps that will vary from about 20-100 IRE. This helps to add some of that inevitable light splash back into the room which gives you a more real world idea of what you will see,” he concludes.

Until Sherlock Holmes is released for home viewing, we recommend the following movies and scenes that have excellent dark content for testing and perfecting black levels on your Runco video product:


  1. The Dark Knight: Chapter 20
  2. Chris Botti in Boston: “I’ve Got You Under My Skin featuring Katherine McPhee” Chapter 8 0:48:00 to 0:52:20
  3. Casino Royale: Chapter 2 00:10:20 to 00:11:17
  4. The Taking of Pelham 123 – which shows a real installation of Planar’s rear-projection command and control room products in NYC subway scenes
  5. I Am Legend: Chapter 8 00:29:26 to 00:31:51




Jennifer Davis - Jennifer is all about technology innovation and is a customer advocate, business executive, mom, and loves her job as Runco’s VP of marketing.

Erik Guslawski - Erik has over a decade of experience in the custom electronics industry as an installer, system designer, sales rep and is now a product specialist for Runco International.

Runco Rep Meeting

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Posted by Jennifer Blasen

Runco is dedicated to selective distribution and Runco products are available exclusively through the best dealers in the home theater business – the Runco authorized dealer network. We recommend local dealers for you to contact using our dealer locator.

With the dealer locator, you can find a business familiar with Runco products, and see their showroom near you. To help us guide and support our valued dealer community, Runco partners with a network of manufacturer representatives across the continent that specialize in supporting high end audio and video products. Most Runco representatives have worked with Runco for several years and deliver sales support, and superior customer service on a daily basis.

Last week, 17 Runco representative firms from the U.S. and Canada visited Runco headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon for a two day meeting. The days were packed full, and Reps had an opportunity to meet with the entire Runco team – from service to engineering. Reps received a taste of Runco Academy Sales and Technical dealer trainings with in-depth product sessions from Runco Field Technical Product Specialists of the award winning Runco video processor DHD Digital Controller, and Runco’s LED QuantumColor Q-750 projector. Reps also had an opportunity to view some really exciting products and technologies that will launch later this year. Although the visit went quickly, It didn’t take long to see common passions between the Runco staff and reps – superior service and video performance.

~Jennifer is a Linfield College Wildcat and has enjoyed her work with Runco for the past 3 years. In her spare time she enjoys running, golfing, working in the garden, and trying new things in the kitchen.

Choosing a Dealer Doesn’t Need to be Hair Raising

Monday, February 22, 2010

Posted February 22, 2010 by Jennifer B. Davis

Over the past several of my friends on Facebook changed their profile pictures to a “retro image” complete with dorky glasses, braces, big hair, and pencil-necked boyfriends.

You know the type and probably have some of your own photos and yearbooks stashed away.

It immediately brought to mind the time when I had an ill-advised perm. All my friends were getting them, I found a salon with a great promotional price, and got a perm. It was technically executed well, but the combination of curls and my thick hair left me looking like I was wearing a Dolly Parton wig. Not a great look on a gangly 9th grader, I can assure you.

I see a lot of parallels between this and some discussions I have been having with Runco authorized dealers in the past few weeks. There is a big difference between someone who CAN install a home theater system in your home and someone who you SHOULD trust. Like that hair stylist who can formulate a permanent solution, but doesn’t have a clue about anything else, not every audio visual specialist should be trusted with your home.

Below are some things that you should keep in mind when selecting an audio video designer and installer for your home with home you can build a long-term relationship.

They must have the technical capability to do the job, of course. So, you should see their portfolio of comparable projects and check references. Often you will personally know someone who has had work done by the dealer, so you can feel confident in their expertise. A browse through their websites can be informative, as well. Ask your prospective dealer about their background, their specialties, their industry affiliations, their insurance coverage, and what continuing education they may have received from the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA) or direct from manufacturer’s like factory training from Runco at our Runco Academy. Some of our dealers are also members of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) or other associations that are relevant to your project and the work you would like them to perform.

We invite you to visit the dealer’s showroom or some of their previous installations that are of similar scope or budget. A visual inspection of the installer’s operation will speak volumes about their work and their attention to the details that matter to you. Not every quality installer will have an extensive display or retail demonstration facilities. In fact, some of the best don’t. All you want to make sure is that the firm is neat, organized, and committed to its business and your satisfaction.

You’ll want to find a dealer that carries the range and quality of products that interest you from video products, to audio systems and lighting or home automation control. Be wary of an installer who says “I’m not an authorized dealer for Runco, but I can get it for you.” We, like other manufacturers, choose our dealers carefully and it is in your best interest to choose a dealer who can support you fully after the sale.

Of course, we would love to recommend local dealers for you to contact using our dealer locator. Here you can find someone familiar with Runco products in your city and find a map to their showrooms where you can see Runco products on display. Of course, not every dealer is right for every client and we have several dealers in most metropolitan areas, so be sure to make you do your own evaluation before making a selection. And before you pick up the phone, visit the Runco Gallery and start creating a design file of inspiring ideas for your project.

Special thanks to the good folks at CEDIA, Home Theater Design Magazine (Avcom Publishing, Ltd.), a classic book by Tina Skinner (Schiffer Publising), and for Runco dealers who helped contribute ideas to this post.

Jennifer B. Davis is all about technology innovation and is a customer advocate, business executive, mom, and loves her job as Runco’s VP of marketing.

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